The role of sommeliers – Ian Hickinbotham

And the correct use of tastevins

By Ian Hickinbotham

August 25th, 2010


Hugh Johnson, the world’s leading wine writer, is reported as having written: The main role of the modern sommelier is to sell as much wine – and water – as possible, and at the highest possible price, as well as to advise.

In fairness, it could be asserted that a sommelier (or restaurant wine-waiter) does what every salesperson does. However, in the trade, it is not unknown for wine sales personnel to ‘reward’ wine waiters who sell their wine and return the corks from the particular bottles as proof. The restaurateur doesn’t have to know....

There was an incident recently in a swanky American restaurant: seems a big-time diner took umbrage about a sommelier’s behaviour. The diner queried the quality of a French wine opened for him by the sommelier, who then took the bottle of wine away, returning a little later to pronounce that the wine was sound. The customer was aghast at such behaviour – not about the response – but because the servant had drunk some of the wine that he had bought.

Real oenophiles will know that the sommelier’s action was conventional – or it used to be. In fact, a part of fine dining was the practice of the sommelier tasting the wine before pouring it to ensure the wine’s quality was satisfactory for the host and his/her guests.

Really, it can be argued the ceremony is no longer necessary. But, half a century ago, it was common for wines to be ‘volatile’ or ‘pricked’: nowadays, oenologists can ensure that the responsible anaerobic bacteria are never in bottled wines (though the current ‘organic’ and ‘bio-dynamic themes may cause reversion).

I remember I almost took umbrage myself once in a Washington hotel: to be more precise, I nearly burst out laughing when the sommelier arrived at table dressed in an all encompassing coloured gown with a ‘tastevin’ hanging from a ribbon around his neck.

I just thought the scene was comical and pretentious until I remembered that I have two tastevins myself complete with ribbons, one received when I was elected a Baron of Barossa in 1980, the other when similarly elected to a wine society in Spain with the Torres family.

In later years, the most famous users of tastevins must surely be the Chevaliers du Tastevin of Burgundy. Their raucous dining events are almost as famous and membership is coveted.

Tastevins are usually made of silver and had a role for examining a wine’s colour especially in a dimly lit cellar.The internal surface is often dimpled to increase the surface area and provide a varying depth of wine to look through.

Some have a metal half-circle attached to the rim for better convenience of holding the shallow vessel. (I remember a friend once thought a tastevin was an ash tray and assumed the attachment was to hold his cigarette while he rested between puffs.)


Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).

Read more about the Chevaliers du Tastevin on our sister site Winepros Archive »


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